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Table Talk : Movie Maker : Ang Lee: A Filmmaker With Taste

August 11, 1994|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

" Food is never just something to eat. " --Margaret Visser 'Much Depends on Dinner'

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You spend all day cooking over a hot stove--filleting a beautiful live fish and then carefully frying it so that it's crisp-skinned yet moist; picking out the best hen in the back yard, boning it with the quickest flick of your knife, stuffing it with wonderful things, then simmering it in rich broth; plunging crackling, fat pork, boiled and marinated, from a wok of hot oil into an ice bath, then braising it with the most flavorful gravy you can imagine and making it into kind of a vegetable-stuffed terrine . . . and your kids greet your splendid Sunday meal with sullen stares and slumped shoulders. You are the most famous chef in Taipei, raising three daughters on your own, but you might as well be a bachelor dad in Tarzana nuking fish-sticks in the microwave, because at heart, families are same all over the world.

For many Americans, "60 Minutes" and "Murder She Wrote" have replaced the ritual of the traditional Sunday family dinner. It's not that the family meal has entirely disappeared, but it doesn't take a sociologist to tell you that as families fragment, the time we spend eating together shrinks as well.

For the Chinese in Taiwan, at least in recent years, things may not be much different. And for director Ang Lee, who dreamed up this multi-daughtered Taiwanese chef for his newest film "Eat Drink Man Woman," the subject of fragmenting families is an obsession.

"In each of my films," Lee says, "I've tried to do an observation of the changing Chinese society and people's struggles within it. It's a society that was structured toward the family unit for thousands of years, but suddenly that is changing. The family is collapsing, social values are collapsing, politically things are collapsing, moving toward Western values--toward democracy, industry, toward personal free will and respect for each other's freedom. People haven't really adjusted. In one sense, you want to break away from the burdens of the old culture. On the other hand, you kind of miss the old values. There's a lot of feeling aroused. You don't know what to believe anymore."

His last film, "The Wedding Banquet" dealt with the hypocrisy of family rituals and marriage. In "Eat Drink Man Woman," the story of a father and three daughters searching for love centers around the kitchen and the dinner table. "Kitchens are an emotional place," Lee says. "The dining table is a metaphor--a ritual that brings people together and separates them as well. It symbolizes their fate.

One of the things that can't be taken for granted in Lee's world: that a woman can cook.

Both "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" feature women who can barely fry an egg--and men who create wonderful family feasts. This mirrors not only modern Chinese society, but Lee's own life.

"I'm a good cook, my brother is a good cook, a lot of my male friends are good cooks," Lee says. "But my wife doesn't cook at all. A lot of Chinese women I know aren't required to cook any more so they run away--as far as they can--from the kitchen."

In "Eat Drink Man Woman," one of the central strands of the plot involves Chef Chu's dominion over the kitchens both at home and the fancy hotel where he works, and the bottled resentment of beautiful middle daughter Jai-Chen who was banished from both kitchens as a child.

"You just couldn't conceive of a woman being a real chef!" Jai-Chen tells her father at one point in the film.

"Yes, you could have become one of the greats," her father's devoted sous-chef Old Wen admits when Chu doesn't answer. "But your father was right to encourage you in your studies. And you, such a success! You owe it all to your father for throwing you out of our smelly old kitchen and keeping you on the right path!"

"She's the real heroine of the movie," Lee says. "She's the smartest, the prettiest and she sees through the stiffness and phoniness of the family structure. She's a modern woman figure, which I personally admire. She's like my wife and a lot of women I know today who have to carry double duties--they have careers, but traditional roles as well."

But even Lee himself is surprised when a reporter asks if one of the plot lines he considered was to have Jai-Chen fulfill her dream of joining her father in the hotel kitchen at the end of the movie.

"That would be almost impossible," Lee says. "You see, usually chefs in China are not so educated. Usually, they come from poor families and are trained in disciple-master system. It's a heavy-duty job."

Instead, Jai-Chen takes her father's place in the family kitchen: She continues the ritual Sunday dinners after her father takes up with a much younger woman. And finally, she gets what she really wants from her father--respect for her cooking.

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